The other day I overheard someone talking about the Charlie Chaplin film, “The Great Dictator,” or more specifically talking about his speech at the end, which is brilliant and moving and I can’t do it justice even to quote from it, so you’re best off watching it.
My eavesdropping turned to interruption, and finally became excited, almost manic jabbering about what is one of the most important and well-made movies of all time.
Like Nazi Germany moving into the Sudetenland, I am about to move into territory of our online columnist Matt Jones and spend most of this talking about film. (It’s OK. As with Czechoslovakia, he’ll get his space back at the end.)
So, the thing about the movie is that it’s incredibly well-made, and it’s both seriously, emotionally powerful while being funny as all hell. The guy talking about the speech hadn’t seen any of the preceding hour and a half, and that’s actually OK.
Chaplin’s first true “talkie” is not cohesive; it’s almost best to appreciate the “Jewish Barber’s Speech” as a speech, amputated. It was essentially Chaplin tacking it on at the last minute and speaking as himself, anyway.
Not that there aren’t other parts worth watching at least as much.
One is the Barbershop Scene, where Chaplin shaves a man to Brahms Hungarian No. 5, speeding and slowing along with the tempo. This would work well in any movie, but it’s Chaplin doing it, so it’s hilarious.
The second is the “globe ballet,” which doesn’t really work in anything but a parody of Hitler, who longingly, lovingly dances with a balloon of the world until it bursts in his face and makes him cry. Nothing hits both competing notes of humor and poignancy as simultaneously as that.
(If there’s a third great scene, it’s Chaplin’s German-gibberish propaganda speech early on that mocks Hitler the most directly, but it hits too close to reality.)
It’s all outrageously funny, most of all because Hitler was the one who aped Chaplin first. When Chaplin was the world’s most recognizable movie star with greasepaint facial hair, Hitler was crawling around obscure trenches with a Kaiser Wilhelm mustache.
When Hitler became famous, it was with Chaplin’s face. To mock Hitler, Chaplin just needed to be himself.
Anyway, the fellow I overheard was telling this girl about Chaplin’s ending speech, and going on about how fantastic it is, which is true. And he was saying that it’s even more relevant today than it was at the time, which is dubious.
Well, I will quote from it:
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
And it’s true, there’s always something miserable going on, but there’s good things, too. National hypocrisy exists, but that’s better than the bald-faced brutality that once threatened the world whole, and there’s much to be said for that.
The film ends on a hopeful note, that the worst will pass. So far the worst has. What’s bad and undesirable remains, but the Tramp’s world triumphed over the Fuhrer’s.
After all, we can still watch a movie about a funny-looking guy mock a dictator and not consider it subversive.